Test Drives

BMW 520d (2017) review: Diesel dancer

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Why the entry-level BMW 5 Series, the 520d, is arguably the best of the lot in Singapore or anywhere else 

BANGKOK, THAILAND – Make no mistake, the latest generation G30 BMW 540i M Sport is one of our favourite cars of 2017, wowing us with its supreme blend of power, comfort, refinement and advanced gadgetry. It’s the epitome of a desirable German sedan, and what has made BMW the coveted brand it is today. 

Thing is though, at $362,800 with COE, it’s not exactly what you’d call affordable.

And on reflection, we started to wonder, to what extent were we being bedazzled by six-cylinder power and all the optional extras, as opposed to the car’s basic capabilities? There’s no doubt the previous F10 model’s mass market 5er, the 520i was a huge sales success globally, but we found the F10 to be wanting in the driving department unless specced to the gills with the right equipment. img 6936 edited 630

Oh, it’s a 520. Count us interested…
Say hello to the BMW 520d Luxury. Stop right there – before you turn tail at the word ‘diesel’, know that diesels are far from dead: the new Vehicle Emissions Scheme (VES) is six months off, and even when it does kick in on January 1, 2018, nobody knows for sure what’s going to be penalised or blessed. 
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Okay, I’m listening…
Whereas the 540i M Sport we last drove is the fastest, most expensive non-M 5er you can buy, the 520d Luxury is the entry to the range, at least until the 520i arrives, that is, and that won’t be until the end of 2017.

’20d’ spells a frugal 2.0-litre diesel with 190bhp and a potent 400Nm of torque, and a price tag of just $266,800 with COE. Alright, a quarter of a million bucks is still a huge chunk of change, but it’s still a cool $100-grand less than the flagship, give or take – and you do get a lot of car for your money.

How do you figure that? 
In physical terms, the new car is wider, longer and taller than the outgoing F10 generation, yet thanks to a clever mix of high-strength steel, aluminium and magnesium, is up to 100kg lighter depending on model. And with a wheelbase that measures nearly three-metres long, interior space is never an issue.
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In material terms, it’s every bit as luxurious as you’d expect. The dashboard is adorned with large swathes of polished wood and slivers of brushed aluminium, and practically everywhere else you can touch, you will find plush leather (coloured rather fittingly, given our surroundings, a shade of Thai iced tea).

What about gadgets and luxuries? Entry-level means ‘bare’ right?
Yup, there’s plenty of those to play with, too. The main highlight you can use to astound your friends is called Gesture Control, which allows you to switch radio stations or music tracks, adjust the volume or take phone calls just by waving or swiping your hand in front of the 10.25-inch touchscreen.

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Another nifty piece of tech is the Display Key, a smart key fob with a colour screen that allows you to remotely check the car’s fuel level, whether the doors are locked, as well as start up the car’s ventilation system even as you’re still walking towards it. Definitely more head-turning when you put it in front of you at dinner than any brand-new smartphone.

Elsewhere, there’s also Adaptive LED headlights, soft-closing doors all round, an ambient interior lighting package, a fully digital instrument cluster and of course the latest version of BMW’s iDrive infotainment system.

The 520d, like the 530i, is a Luxury trim model so it loses the M Sport kit that some might find more appealing (bodykit, M themed interior and steering wheel, sportier suspension setup) but in day-to-day driving you lose very little otherwise: all the major safety, comfort and convenience points are still there, such as six airbags, iDrive with navigation, multi-zone air-con, keyless start and go, automatic tailgate, and so on. 

Oh, so less expensive doesn’t mean bare. But what about on the move?
Welcome to the traditional ace up BMW’s sleeve. Like its bigger brother, the G11 7-series, the 520d handles the twisty stuff in a way that belies its large size. Part of our test drive included several runs on a handling course that included a slalom and emergency lane change, and the car took it in its stride. Like in many modern cars, fully electric power steering does mean very little feel gets transmitted through the steering wheel, but the G30’s body control is hard to fault, the body roll looking far more dramatic in the pictures than it felt in the car.

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Somewhat surprisingly though, this did appear to take a toll on ride comfort. The rough and pothole-ridden Thai roads probably had a part to play, but the 520d’s ride did feel a bit fidgety at times, especially compared to the 540i we sampled in Singapore that was fitted with the optional adaptive dampers. Experienced in isolation though, the 520d’s suspension doesn’t give too much cause for complaint, and is more than sufficient to soothe the bums of local users.

What about their ears though? Diesels are noisy, right?
You’d be surprised, actually. Like other variants in the range, the 520d’s engine is also shrouded in insulation to keep noise levels down. You can still hear the characteristic clatter on start-up or if you’re standing next to the car, but once inside, you can barely hear it, even at idle.

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There’s enough power in the four-cylinder turbodiesel to send the 520d to 100km/h in 7.5 seconds, and more than enough torque to spin the wheels up in the wet (before traction control cuts in, that is). Once up to speed the 520d makes for an effortless cruiser, the eight-speed auto ’box keeping engine rpm low at a steady lope while offering seamless shifts if the need to overtake arises.

The calm and serenity inside the car isn’t all thanks to the drivetrain though; serious attention has been paid to aerodynamics, too. The underside of the car is full of channels that optimise airflow, the kidney grille has louvres in it that can close if cooling airflow is not required, and there are air inlets and outlets in the front bumper and fenders that prevent the buildup of turbulence in the wheelarches.

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So what’s the verdict?
We returned the keys to the 540i M Sport having been absolutely bowled over by its repertoire of abilities. Our time in the 520d Luxury might not have set our hearts aflutter in quite the same way, but we still walked away from it feeling mightily impressed.

Having a lower gizmo count might take away from some of the initial ‘wow’ factor, but certainly not its other qualities – and its newfound refinement paired with an improved level of performance, even at the entry level, should make its rivals like the E-Class and S90, worry no matter how accomplished.

In short, the 520d is only 70 percent the price of the 540i, but at least 85 percent as good. 

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BMW 520d Luxury
Engine 1,995cc, 16V, inline 4, turbodiesel
Power 190hp at 4000rpm
Torque 400Nm at 1750-2500rpm
Gearbox 8-speed automatic
Top Speed 234km/h
0-100km/h 7.5 seconds
Fuel efficiency 4.3L/100km
CO2 114g/km
Price $266,800 with COE

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Jon Lim